Indomitable workhorse

HOGGARD with skipper Flintoff-AP

Hoggard embodies traits that have helped England stuff words down the throats of critics, and, perhaps, traits that may just allow the tourists pull off the unthinkable, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

Matthew Hoggard's joyride around the ground on his prize was doubtless watched with some trepidation in the English camp. With wonky backs, dubious knees, and the personal troubles of Marcus Trescothick, England can ill-afford a wheelie gone wrong. Especially if the man on the leather seat has just taken seven of 16 wickets to fall, and has caused the ball to perform a few illogicalities of swerve and cut.

The men from the Old Blighty have been notoriously yellow-bellied tourists in the past — few visits to India have been devoid of whingeing about everything from the heat to the hotels to the gastric hazards of Indian seafood. With misfortune's spectre refusing to call off its spooky haunt as the first Test approached, England could have been forgiven for the odd rant.

There, however, was none. That should have been an indication this side was different. For five days England "scrapped hard", eyeballed India, and played with the spirit lesser sides would have found squashed in similar circumstances. Despite being whittled down to a line-up that would have scarce caused a flutter before the Test, the Englishmen showcased the indomitable will that has seen them win seven of their last eight series.

What Andrew Flintoff said on being asked about the contents of his team talks is instructive: "I don't know if it is inspirational to be honest, it just comes from the heart. I have a lot of passion playing for England and leading these lads out, and the lads have been fantastic. They have shown great belief and responded magnificently."

And in a squad of men who demonstrated considerable character, Hoggard was the standout — his dedication and stamina were the stuff of legend. Collingwood fought back, Cook took his first very impressive steps, but Hoggard did something medium-paced swing bowlers rarely do (unless thy name is Dev) in India: he yanked the game open with a shock attack.

For some time now, the Yorkshireman has been the least known Beatle: his role in the fab four carries the title conventional swing bowler first up, but is roughly that of the good-natured workhorse ever willing to trudge back to the mark one more time after the ball gets soft. His ability to run in all day — those bustling, honest-farmer strides — has endeared him to his captains.

Collingwood celebrates after scoring a century in Nagpur.-AP

In Nagpur, the 29-year-old was out in the field earlier than any of his teammates during breaks, uncorking and delivering at an obliging baseball mitt. And during play, he swung it `Irish', nipped it off the track and bowled a heavy ball to compensate for a lack of pace (mid-120kmphs). As he said after his remarkable spell in which he sent back Dravid, Jaffer, and Laxman on the third morning, "Whether it (swing) is conventional or reverse you've got to have a bit about you, no use being straight up and down. It gets easy for the batsmen really."

Crucially, he seems to have Sehwag's number. Michael Vaughan, who flew home before the first Test, had said, "Virender Sehwag is becoming a big threat because he's scoring so fast. He's scoring at such a fast rate of knots that if he bats all day he's on 250 not out. He does give you a chance though and it's up to us to take it."

The Delhi opener sets the pace of matches, tearing into bowlers at the outset and seizing initiative; England's minor successes at ensuring India didn't run away with the match were the result of removing Sehwag early. A deceitful slower 'un — fingers rolling across ball — snared the opener in the first innings, a delivery that hinted in and then notched off the wicket did the business in the second.

Just how special this spell of bowling was to the right-armer was evident when he was asked to compare it with his 12 for 205 in Johannesburg in January last year, the best individual bowling performance by an Englishman since Ian Botham 25 years earlier. "That was a lot easier because the ball was swinging," said Hoggard. "This is one of the best spells I bowled. To bowl 30 overs and give just 57 runs on this flat track means I've been very consistent. That was the idea to dry up the runs and bowl in the right areas."

Hoggard, whose seven wickets in the match took him past Sidney Barnes's 189 scalps to 191, possesses the self-deprecating humour characteristic of the English; that doesn't preclude him, however, from having a dig at others.

At the press conference during the first Test, seeing media manager Andrew Walpole issue instructions to waiting pressmen, Hoggard quipped, "Sure you haven't preached before?" And this on Mudhsuden `Monty' Panesar: "He did really well, I wish he were sitting here instead of me to be honest. That'd have been much easier for me."

An ability to see the game for what it is and laugh at oneself is key to success especially on the subcontinent, where one is often left holding the baby as fortunes switch quicker than Kevin Pietersen's hair-dos. Flintoff's captaincy has been conservative — his utterances in public have centered around fighting hard, playing with passion, and not getting ahead of oneself. Traits Hoggard embodies, traits that have helped England stuff words down the throats of critics, and, perhaps, traits that may just allow the tourists pull off the unthinkable.